Chapter 7 - Escape from Slavery
from Herman's Memoir
Heroes from the Attic:
A Gripping True Story of Traumas and Triumphs
After Siggi and I arrived at the university near the Washington-Idaho border, we moved into separate rooms in a dormitory and took care of our paperwork. Since I had spent little time here before, I explored the campus and its surroundings. Pullman is an island in the rolling hills of the Palouse, where in the summer golden grain grows in waves from the eastern horizon into the sunset. In winter the hills are brown or covered with snow.
The tree-lined streets and red brick buildings on campus radiated an academic atmosphere that thrilled me. I was elated to be here and felt a sense of belonging, and not only because there was no slimy mud or soul-wrenching screaming anywhere.
Up to this time, I had made very few major decisions in my life and those had been mostly made on the spur of the moment; all others had been made for me by higher authorities or lower beings. The big decisions that I had made so far were as somewhat along these lines: I will jump over this ditch and hopefully won’t fall in. Our decision to come to America had been without a thought, because Siggi and I responded instantaneously to Maxo’s trap.
It was mostly my curiosity about the stink of the factory that helped me get a job. And of course, I did make the decision to borrow seventy-five dollars to help me escape from slavery. To attend college was a spontaneous firing of the synapses in my brain that might have been inspired by my guardian angel. Now, I was forced to decide on what I might want to study and this decision could have a big effect on the course of my life.
Up to this time, I had given nearly no thought to this and did not know enough about the available choices. Thinking about the consequences of choosing a study major was too far out of my scope to consider. While slouching on my bed, I perused the course catalog to see what was offered. In less than an hour I decided to major in architectural engineering, because I thought that developing my artistic talents would offer me the greatest satisfaction. I also had liked the lifestyle, creativity and freedom of my father with his architectural practice that also had earned him a lot of money. However, instead, my quick decision would cost me a lot of money, two inches of finger and subject me to eons of office boredom.
I liked to draw, was good at it, and had always wanted to know about the inner workings of everything. By the age of six or seven, I had disassembled clocks to discover time. I took apart a radio to learn the results of not reassembling it correctly. Over the years, I destroyed objects with my curiosity but also fixed some that were broken. In Simonswolde, I researched our world on an ancient globe that had a dime-sized compass built into its base. I rotated this base back and forth to figure out why the compass needle always pointed to the same direction. Finding no solution, I pried off its glass cover and forced it to go my way. But it always insisted on returning to the same bearing. While this little needle had an unwavering aim, my family was floundering through its mortal existence.
Maybe that is why I always tried to find comfort with my unending curiosity. Ma reminisced about my childhood in one of her letters:
"You always wanted to know everything and even asked me, ‘why do flies have legs and worms don’t have any?’"
* * *
When I showed the results of my grade prediction test, which had made my cousin Frauke so happy, to my academic counselor, he did not roll on the floor laughing. Instead, he asked me to enroll in "bonehead" English, even though I was a hairy beast. I did not tell him that I had only been recently delivered to America, but told him that I had a good command of the English language and should not have to take a remedial course.
I surprised myself that I had countermanded a professor, since he represented the authority that had always frightened me. Authority had caused me to freeze up in its presence, because it had intimidated and oppressed me for so long. Then I was even more surprised that this counselor granted me permission to enroll in English Composition as I desired.
In college I quickly began to dissolve the strongest chains, my mental and emotional states, that had always limited my abilities and kept me under the control of other people. Now was able to build up my confidence. In my new freedom I would eventually find the ghosts in my mind. However, it would take me a long time to realize that I even had such, because I always felt that I had not much more emotional stress than the average person.
While I was slowly beginning to have a normal life in college, I was able to make friends and did not have to be lonely anymore. Being able to do what I was doing now was all I desired as long as I did not flunk out. There were a lot of nice people in this world after all. I spent hours sitting in the Student Union lounge that was such a vibrant place, watching and visiting with boys and girls. We crowded into booths and around tables. We joked, smoked, sipped Cokes and listened to the jukebox. On weekends this building was usually packed with teachers and students and was pulsating with talk, laughter and music. Some of the songs from the jukebox never changed; "Scotch and Soda" and "Georgia" will always be on my mind.
Although I never realized it until many years later, Siggi and I never talked about our ordeals or about our father and mother, nor would we rarely do so even may years into the future. At this time we still had two big challenges to deal with, earning enough money and earning college degrees.
* * *
Twenty-some years later, my wife and I would return to visit our alma mater. I was anxious to relive an hour or two in the Union Building, where I had spent some of the happiest times of my life. Sadly, we would be disappointed the minute we walked into its main lounge.
This lounge was morgue silent. The booths we used to crowd into, up to eight at a time, were no longer there. Small randomly arranged tables with two or three hard chairs had replaced them. The few students present looked sad and seemed to be strangers to each other. The same jukebox was still there but the music had changed, and I did not like it. Oddly enough, I still found "Scotch and Soda" and put a coin into the machine to play it. But it was not the same. It seemed that the light-hearted spirit had left this place.
In the lobby I perused a telephone book, because I wanted to connect with someone, or something, from the beginnings of my happy years. Its first section listed emergency services, agencies and support groups that I had never seen before anywhere. Sex Orgy Support Group, Lacking Self-discipline Whiners and Got Knocked Up Hotline, as well as numerous other groups relating to aberrant personal behavior and societal disintegration.
I reflected upon my college years and mentally back-sighted to past markers as I had learned in surveying. I remembered when I had stood by the window in our dilapidated second floor apartment during my Screech and Stench years, and had looked down to observe two girls. Their behavior and appearance had seemed strangely out of place in our rundown neighborhood. Even so, I felt that they wanted to be positive and popular, and they would be labeled pessimists for pointing out unpleasant truths. I recognized that complaining was freely accepted in Germany, whereas such is frowned upon in American society.
I took a mental foresight and projected past trends ahead into the future. Already then, I could see America’s social fabric slowly unraveling. I guessed that this could be the trend in wealthier societies to varying degrees. Generally, people need humbling, and loving, experiences to stay the course. Siggi and I had had too many of the former and none of the later. This begs the big questions as to why all of our lives our minds seem to automatically concentrate on brutal reality, and why we have the incessant urge to share the insights from our experiences with others, to help create a better world.
* * *
Siggi and I did not start drinking booze in college until after our first year and then only a few times to flush out stress after difficult tests. Even though I never wanted to get drunk, I did once. Involuntarily. Totally. Siggi and I went to a New Year’s Eve party hosted by our friends, Richard and Amir. They lived above us on Lombard Avenue in Everett during the time when we had to skip one semester to earn more money for college. As we entered their apartment, Amir offered me a drink, a glass full of orange something. It tasted mildly alcoholic, and after I finished it, it finished me.
The last thing I remembered was me announcing to the party that I was flying to the moon. I departed quickly and did not know how I got there. At about four o’clock in the morning, I made a slow landing. I was so cold that my teeth were rattling uncontrollably as they only could on a cold moon. It took me some time to realize that I was not there. I was lying on my back on my living room floor and I was unable to move.
I heaved, shivered and chattered weakly:
"Bbbb blankkket," but Houston did not respond to my SOS.
Later I learned that if had I barfed, I could have drowned myself. I would not have been the first person to suffocate in vomit.
After I fully recovered from my space voyage, I asked my friend, six-foot-four Richard:
"Did you carry me down to my apartment?"
"Ah! No. I pulled you down," he responded.
"Pulled me? You mean you grabbed me under my arms and dragged me?"
"No, I pulled your feet."
"Even down the stairs?" I wanted to know.
"Yeah," he confessed, "your head bounced nicely down the steps, ha, ha, ha."
A year or so later, back in college, Siggi also flew to the moon, along with a lot of other students. Fortunately, my girlfriend and I missed the flight on that rocket. We arrived at the off-campus launch pad at about eleven o’clock at night and wondered why the party house was completely dark. I opened the front door and turned on a light. Limp and lifeless male and female astronauts were scattered all over the place. They were spread around the floors, on beds and couches, singly or in bunches. I found one survivor in the bathroom. Siggi’s girlfriend sat on the floor and was the only one who had not passed out from space sickness. She was tenderly holding my brother’s head in her lap, face up, because he was unconscious like everyone else. He told me later that he had only been sleeping, and that intermittently boys and girls had come in to relieve themselves. However, his girlfriend had assured them that Siggi was not in this world, and he also did not respond to my prodding.
* * *
One day, while I was visiting Richard, he was not using his head. He was cleaning his .22 pistol, while I was standing at the window, contemplating the symbolism and geometrics of the Star of David on the synagogue across our street. Bang! The room exploded. Instead of reacting in terror and diving out of the third-floor window, like I would have when I was younger, I worried about the sudden ringing in my ear. I calmly turned around to see the most surprised man ever. Richard mumbled: "I thought it was empty," while inspecting the new hole in the wall.
I wondered how far this bullet had traveled, if this might have been illegal and whom it might have killed. Therefore, I hurried back to my apartment below, pretended to be studying Shakespeare’s Henry VI, to learn a little about lawyers in case I soon needed one, and to establish an alibi in case somebody came looking for a sniper.
Then there was the time when none of us used our heads. Richard, Siggi and I were bored and longed for adventure, and therefore, we rented a small boat with an outboard motor and cruised around a nearby bay of the Puget Sound. When we were far out, a gale rose to rock us around exuberantly, so much so that we became afraid and decided to return to shore. I was the captain in control, and while I was turning our craft around, I felt its outboard motor control stick pull away. Instinctively, I gripped it firmly as the motor fell into the sea. We lifted it back into our boat but could not start it again. Without control we just bobbed around, to and fro, for what seemed like forever, before the rental agent came to find us. We thought it to be a miracle that we had not capsized. Years later I would learn that one of my former college roommates had drowned under similar circumstances.
* * *
One day, I was using a nearby self-service laundry in Everett to brighten my outlook. My self-proclaimed uncle, Maxo, whom I had not experienced for a long time, came in and darkened my outlook. Cordially we exchanged information. After I had left his tideland, he had had trouble finding someone else to work for him, at least for the wage that he was willing to pay. Therefore, he had hired a retired alcoholic neighbor.
Maxo asked me what I was majoring in, and I told him that I was studying architectural engineering, a five-year curriculum. I knew that this would make him happy, and sure enough, his face lit up in the way that I had anticipated. This told me his thoughts:
"Good, you’ll flunk out. I might get you back again."
He also saw my old Ford, and with a faint hint of a smile said to me, "Ah, you got a new car!?"
"No, we just had the old one painted."
"I see," he replied.
Siggi and I had the Ford painted for thirty dollars to stroke our egos, because it had looked like a wreck. Its hood had blown up, obstructing its windshield at sixty miles an hour, while I was crossing a very long two-lane bridge.
Every time I would see Maxo over the years, his unfailing statement would be something like, "You got a new car?!" But this was rarely the case. Even when my future wife and I would visit with him occasionally over the next two dozen some years, he would still make such comments. Siggi, who got to know him much better than I, told me that he thought that Maxo was envious of people who were successful or did things that he was not able to accomplish himself. Perhaps such as my accomplishment of aiming and draining my bladder on the wide-open tideland, while yodeling in a rainstorm. Puttin’ on the Ritz.
* * *
As I progressed in my college courses, I continued to gain confidence in myself and my abilities. I even earned the best grade possible in my second semester of English Composition, which I was predicted to fail. This gave me an enormous boost of confidence in my abilities. I also earned good grades in architecture but was barely able to pass some of the mathematics courses. However, I eventually discovered a repeating cycle. I would do very poorly on the first exams of the semesters, because I was extremely nervous. Toward the end of the test periods, I would often be sweaty and wrung out and figured that I would now flunk anyway. Then my pencil and slide rule would race to beat the clock, and when it was over I would feel as sticky and relaxed as if I had just come out of a steamy hot sauna.
As the semesters progressed, I gained confidence earlier during the test periods, and this helped to improve my scores. The change in my attitude demonstrated that ghosts from my past were indeed playing evil games in my mind, but I would stubbornly refuse to let them gain the upper hand over me, no matter how much pain they would inflict. I probably developed such a fighting spirit, because no one ever told me that I was a victim of anything.
My very good friend, Gale, and I took a structural engineering class together. On the morning that we had to take a test in this class, I woke up with my last ear plugged with wax. I felt desperate, because I needed all my senses to earn a passing grade. Gale and I arrived at the classroom at the same time and sat down next to each other. The professor was already handing out test papers, while giving verbal instructions. I heard his muffled voice and I nervously whispered to Gale:
"I can’t hear the prof. What’s he saying?"
He motioned for me to be quiet. I felt as if I were drowning and no one would help me. Not being able to hear well would cause me frequent problems throughout my life. For example, one time I ordered a sandwich at a busy lunch counter. The cute girl taking my order asked me, "Breed or bite?"
Even though I hoped that I had heard correctly I said, "Pardon me?"
"Breed or bite?" she repeated.
I was confused, as I had been so many times before. The light in her eyes did not match her question. A basic instinct wanted me to breed right there. But then I realized that she must have asked me, "wheat or white?," because I was in a fast-food joint and people normally do not breed there. I pawed the ground, snorted with disappointment, and told her uncertainly "wheat?."
* * *
During my first semester in college, Siggi’s previous roommate had invited me to move in with him in his off-campus trailer that had a stick-built bedroom addition. It became my room. I accepted his offer, because he would charge me far less for room and board than I would have to pay for living on campus. This fixed sum included about seventy-five cents a day for my food.
When winter became very cold, I used a floor rug as a blanket on my bed. When it became colder still, I asked my housemate’s dog, Rusty, to sleep on top of it. I was still striving to become civilized and insisted on clean bedding. Therefore, I bathed Rusty and dried him with the salt and pepper suit that Uncle Fullo had bought for me. I had worn it only a few times, and after I dried Rusty with it, I threw out this family heirloom.
I soon learned that my housemate was moody. He would sit at his desk for hours brooding over his studies without saying a word. But later in the semester he lightened my spirits when he placed an ad in a German national magazine advertising for female pen pals. He received over three hundred replies and many portraits from several countries.
I corresponded with one of these girls and enjoyed this long distance romance. She was an actress in Munich and said that she knew the Pirzers, who owned the dancehall/beer cellar where my family had lived towards the end of the war. In one of her letters she informed me that she did not mind sleeping with older men and that we should get married as soon as possible. I concluded that she had somehow become pregnant, without my enjoyment, and therefore I quit writing her.
During this semester, because of the lack of proper nutrition, I failed to score high enough in my physical evaluation tests. Therefore, I was required to take a remedial physical education class during the following semester, when I also moved back into Sherwood Hall. Now I could eat in a dining room and always fill my belly. With sufficient nourishment and a more comfortable bed, I soon became one of the best athletes in that class and wondered why I had to enroll in it.
* * *
Sherwood Hall and its twin dormitory were two-story, flat-roof wood structures adorned with old, gray tar or asbestos shingle siding. Some its occupants unlocked each other’s doors with knives that they borrowed from the dining hall. They also removed some if its flimsy walls to enlarge their quarters, and one of the students even kept a live turkey in his suite.
I had worked very hard to be able to afford to live in this dormitory. I resided there for several semesters, during one of which the combined grade average of its occupants dropped below "2.0." With my help.
Nowadays people have become much smarter than we were, because more than half the students in many colleges are on the honor roll. More than eighty percent of the graduates of one famous college now finish with honors. Had I been born a couple of decades later, I could have been smarter too and with a lot less effort. Nowadays many students are high achievers even though they sometimes sleep on top of each other. Boys on top of girls, or vice versa, or some such combination. If I had had my choice of with whom I could have slept, I would soon have flunked out from sleep depravation. However, we were deprived in some other way, because all girls were always locked in for safekeeping every night in segregated dormitories. We did not dare return them home after their curfew, because they would be punished, and then they might not allow us to date them again.
Siggi and I enjoyed the international flavor of Pullman, the quiet university town. There were students from all over the world, and over the years we socialized with, or befriended many of them. There was an Untouchable doctoral candidate from India and shy Bamadele from Nigeria, who lived across the hall from me. I liked them, because their black eyes reflected their lives had also been difficult, and they were determined to become successful in spite of it. There was Chaim, a master’s student from Israel, with whom Siggi also played a lot of chess games. Hans von Randech, the son of a Nazi general who was executed for disobeying Hitler’s orders, taught me sociology. A very good friend was Fuad Ali Butt, an architecture student from Pakistan, who could recite Shakespeare from memory. When he had first arrived in Pullman, he thought that he had landed in the wrong place, because he expected to arrive in Washington D.C. and not in the empty hills of Eastern Washington.
Siggi was an excellent chess player and beat most of his opponents most of the time. He would sometimes even win after turning the chessboard around, to continue playing the losing opponent’s side. And as if that were not intimidating enough, he also spent little time pondering his moves and sometimes even read a newspaper while waiting for his next chess move.
* * *
When Siggi and I returned to Washington State University to begin another school year, we moved into a brand new dormitory, Goldsworthy Hall. It was located on the major loop road around campus. By this time I had overcome most of the chronic shyness of my youth, and when I was in a really good mood, I would even become feisty and adventuresome. For example, one day when new snow covered the ground, I was returning from the dining hall and had an unusual idea.
I rolled a snowball as large as I could and placed it next to the curb of this major campus road. Then I went to my room from where I unknowingly broadcast my brain waves. It did not take long before a band of rebels appeared and rolled my snowball bigger. They created new ones and placed them across the street, blocking all traffic. Ever more volunteers joined my avalanching rebellion, while a festive mood spread over the crowd. However, I soon became worried, because I lost control. My rebels went out of control. They were even breaking off traffic signs to embed them in the snow wall. This kind of destructive behavior was not my nature, and furthermore, innocent people could get hurt crashing into this unexpected barrier. Therefore, I was relieved when a police cruiser arrived and tried to push his car through the wall. However, he was unable to do so.
I saw my roommate, the one who would later drown, drop a big snowball from a pedestrian overpass onto the hood of a police car, while shouting a false complaint, "Cops hurt." The police officer became enraged and spun away. This titillated my rebels, and they continued enlarging the barrier with snow and objects they gathered from around the neighborhood. They even crowned it with a porta-potty stolen from a nearby construction site, and I do not know if they might have spilt its contents.
A police pickup, loaded with snow for extra weight, attempted to push through the wall. Instead it became stuck. The mob cheered, jeered and booed until several more cops arrived to capture or disperse the crowd. The cowardly crowd ran into dormitories and into hiding. I worried about having undermined the authority of the police, because every act of insolence leads to further such acts and greater criminality.
An imported ex-slave started a riot, and only he knew why and how it began. Yet his innocent idea and small effort resulted into an avalanche of civil disobedience. He had not conspired with anyone, but achieved far-reaching results, while taking no credit or blame for its consequences.
This brings us to Ami’s Avalanche Axioms. The implications of these theories can be enormous. Ami A: Baseless optimism allows problems to fester, grow and multiply. Bitching about real problems publicizes them and hastens their resolution.
Ami B: If undesirable deeds are not justly punished, they can gather like snowballs into avalanches that can even crush nations.
* * *
In college I caught the zest of life as much as my meager resources would allow. I dated girls and one of them was the epitome of hedonism. Nothing seemed to bother her. Everything was fun and funny. She was from Germany and was burdened with few studies, because she was mostly a live-in maid for a professor. I met her while attending a party at another professor’s house. While I was engaged in a conversation, she walked in, six feet tall with big sky-blue eyes. She played it cool and I had to meet her, because a man chases a woman until she catches him. It did not take her long to catch me, in the middle of the night, in her basement bedroom, where we pursued one of the most primeval instincts. I had never had so much fun before and realized why half the people in the world could be the unintended outcome of such fun.
At three in the morning, euphorically and quietly I sneaked out to the Ford, coasting it downhill before starting it. I did not want to wake the professor, because someday I might take one of his courses and ask me embarrassing questions. When I arrived back at my dormitory, my roommate, Bill, assumed that I had spent another long night slaving away in the architectural design lab, which I occasionally did to meet deadlines. This night had been very different, but I never told him.
* * *
At about this time, Ma wrote me the following to further enhance my zest for life:
"…Monday I read in the newspaper that Herbert is building a fifty-meter high building with twenty-four apartments, businesses and underground parking near the German border by Basel. Have you received any payments from him?"
I found this to be a very odd question, because she knew that he had never given me personally more than one or two Deutsche Marks. Now she wanted me to know that Pa earned a lot but was always scheming to avoid paying us. While reading this letter, I was resting on my bed, while Bernard, my roommate at the time, was studying at his desk. I quietly rose, walked out of our room and went for a long walk. I was looking for a guilty party that I could pound into pulp but could not find one.
Instead I bawled.
Years before, a court had ordered Pa to pay seventy-five marks a month to maintain his two sons. This amounted to less than twenty dollars apiece. Over time, because of Ma’s stubborn pursuit, this sum was increased somewhat. But this was immaterial since Pa paid his obligations only infrequently in order to maintain his wasteful lifestyle.
I never wrote to our relatives in America, Germany or Switzerland, and I seldom wrote to Ma. But she kept writing us about our good old days and giving us useless advice. She even asked other people to encourage me to write her more frequently. However, at this time I did not even want to hear, speak or write German. I simply did not think about the past and wanted to avoid Ma’s intercontinental missiles, because it would be easier for me to remain a hero.
In the summer of 1962 another kind of missile landed in my soul. It was a large registered document from the Consulate of the Federal Republic of Germany in Seattle. It was addressed to me at Washington State University and was forwarded to our permanent home address, Siggi’s and mine: General Delivery, Everett, Washington, where the two of us had already resided, off and on, in a little box for too many years.
Pa had promised us that if we were good boys, we would someday inherit his property, and Siggi and I would certainly have exceeded his expectations, if he truly had any. Now I was wondering if this was coming true or if the German military wanted to draft me.
I tore open the envelope and tried to interpret the fourteen pages of turgid gobbledygook of German sesquipedalian words and protracted sentences. In essence, the court summoned Siggi and me to appear, personally, for the first time ever, around the time of my birthday in October. Our father claimed that he could no longer support us. He owned nothing and worked for his wife for less than two hundred fifty marks, a little over fifty dollars, a month. He claimed that the defendants were now of age and had not made any claim for support since January of 1958. This date could have been in error, because the court battles did continue for a long time thereafter, and this summons was just the latest and probably also the final one, at least between Ma, Teufi and Pa, or between only Teufi or Pa.
These court documents did not state that under the law, Paragraph 1602 BBB, every father is required to provide support for his children. According to the Support Rights Laws, unwed minor children are doubly privileged "…in that the children do not have to deplete their own possessions in the support of their parents and, secondly, in that the parents are at the risk of their own support in having to share everything with their children."
This summons also ignored that fathers were legally required to pay for the education of their children until they obtained the same level that he had achieved himself, even if they were of legal age.
Siggi and I could not afford to fly to Germany. We learned from Ma’s past experiences that it also would be futile to obtain justice in German courts. We also could not take time from earning a bare living and our studies. At this time I commuted nightly to the planing mill on a single-gear bicycle without lights that I had bought for ten dollars, because Siggi needed the Ford to get to his job, which was much further away than mine.
He and I did not respond to this court summons, as our father and second mother had undoubtedly anticipated, and thus we lost by default.
Included with the documents from the German consulate was a letter written by Pa on the letterhead of "H & E, that is Herbert and Elfriede, Neuman, Architects." Teufi could not legally practice architecture, since she had not studied it and Ma’s lawyer confirmed that she was not licensed. But the court also accepted that our father was now working as her employee, thereby evading his obligations to pay for our livelihood.
Our Trio had always owned nothing. These documents also stated that Pa was now also penniless and Teufi owned everything. Upon reading this, I did not roll on the floor laughing with Schadenfreude, consult a lawyer or a mental counselor. Instead, I just I remained in my permanent emotional and intellectual numbness about our family matters like always.
I knew that paupers lived in streets, attics and other idyllic places. Pa and Teufi had lied and twisted the truth so often that one never could be sure about the facts as they claimed them to be. Whatever the case, after I read these papers I placed them with my letters from Ma and promptly forgot about them. I saved them for a time when I might be able to face our past. I did not even discuss this with Siggi and did not ask Ma if Pa was now really as poor as he claimed to be. I did not care if he lost everything or became a multi-millionaire, because during those times I cared little about my homeland and family.
Only years later did I confirm that Pa gave away his architectural practice, his luxury home, his Mercedes and his sweet little children. He bargained away everything but his clothes and only received heartaches in return.
Then Teufi divorced him.
No court ever tried Teufi for practicing architecture without a license. No court convicted her and our father for obstruction of justice and for attempting to mislead the judge. They were not punished for committing perjury by telling monstrous lies under oath. Pa had impoverished himself so he would not have to pay his obligations and had even lied to the court to become a pauper. It thus came to pass that he was reaping what he had sown.
But only temporarily.
* * *
Ma did not correspond with me about this latest court case but sent Siggi at least two letters, in which she instructed him to write to the judge for this upcoming trial. She wanted him to paraphrase her, as if he had written them spontaneously, without any influence from anybody else.
Siggi and I did not socialize much with each other in college and did not even discuss this case. We reminded each other too much of the past that we wanted to forget. When we incidentally met somewhere on campus, one or the other would usually say:
"Did you get any mail?"
In other words: "I’m so lost and lonely. Did you find our family?"
Usually the answer would be "no," and that would often be the end of our conversation. We always seemed to walk at a faster pace than other students, as if we had a purpose, always going toward a goal. Even with full bellies, we would usually pass everyone strolling back from our dining hall, and I can only guess as to why this might have been so.
I did not know if Siggi followed Ma’s advice and wrote letters to the judge. Her pro forma drafts were written to address "His Honor" but were a jumble of ideas and reminiscences. Her thoughts often shifted from sentence to sentence.
She wrote: "My Dear Siggi! It is certain that winning or losing your court process is dependent only on the letter that you will write…
"…It is a truly sorry democracy, where abandoned children have to sit in the corner and are mocked by their fellow students… I will send the court documents via a law professor to the local justice minister. Ami is very upset to read in the plaintiff’s complaint that ‘both parties are guilty for the divorce.’"
"I believe we were eleven or thirteen years old when we had the courage to seek out the sorry judge Bender when our ‘father’ wanted to take us away from you… When Ami pulls nightly, year after year, heavy boards from a conveyor belt, he will always remember this. Teufi has to fear his pent-up resentment."
"…Our father could with all his money buy the president of the European council (as one of his lawyers). We had to ‘suck our thumbs’ while our father blew his money on dozens of mistresses. And when our mother went to the police about this, she was told he could daily bring six women home, if they were over sixteen years old. This is the result of the new ‘freedom’…"
Ma quickly followed up the above sample appeal letter to Siggi with a second one:
"…That you don’t have a family that cares about you can be seen, because Uncle Fritz has kept all of the inheritance from his father for himself. He did not give Buskohl anything. He was at that time a mayor and was able to control everything so he could become the sole owner. Today he owns several stores …
"Dear Siggi, … do not show this letter to Ami… Besides he could become sick from failure of glandular activities, like the pancreas, which can happen after grief. This slides easily off you since you are slick as an eel. In the Hardtstrasse he had severe constipation, his intestines became lame, his digestion ceased to function, because we always had the same food. Keep an eye on him, since he has to drive and is in great danger in the old car…"
Siggi never showed me these letters, but I retrieved them years later from Ma’s apartment. He must have returned them to her on his many trips to Europe during later years.
Besides long letters, Ma also wanted to send us clothes in America. And sometimes succeeded. She sent Siggi a suitcase with seven overcoats and several dozen socks. He kept one coat, gave the others away or threw them out. Ma still did not eat a balanced diet partly to satisfy her addiction to hoarding, and could not afford to mail us her presents for which I will always be grateful. In case Siggi worried that he did not receive enough coats from her, she informed him that this was not her fault:
She wrote him: "I asked Pastor Mennicke if he could pay me to send you some stuff for Christmas. He said he did not have anything. The church had to build homes for cripples because of the many people who are crippled in traffic accidents. He offered me a fifty-mark gift for the postage. I told him to keep it since a one-time fifty marks was not enough for the postage for all the things I have to send…"
* * *
During my third year in college I was engaged to Wendy, and we had a lot of good times together. She invited me to a dance, because my skills had improved enough that I did not crush her toes anymore. The band played and the forum romanum was crowded. Gracefully I danced Wendy into a pillar that caused it to bend in the middle. It was ready to topple. These pillars were made of split corrugated cardboard wrapped around cylinders of chicken wire. When I tried to straighten this pillar to prevent a disaster, I initiated an earthquake. The pillar collapsed. All pillars in the forum tumbled, domino style, because colorful streamers were tied from column to column. The earth was shaking. Girls were screaming. Boys were cheering. The band played on.
At the end of our school year, Wendy and I returned with our belongings to the coast in the old Ford. Since I did not have enough room to take or to store all of my stuff, I threw out the architectural designs that I had painstakingly created in ink on expensive illustration boards. I really wanted to save them, because I had spent so much time preparing them, and I also needed them for my résumé to obtain a good job in the future.
On our way to the coast our engine overheated repeatedly, and I kept adding water to the radiator in order to be able to finish our journey. Near Moses Lake, in the middle of Washington, I discovered bubbles rising from the coolant and guessed that the engine block was cracked or a gasket had blown. In either case, we could not risk continuing with such a defect. There were so many problems that needed to be repaired that it was not worth fixing this car anymore.
"What I won’t do for love," said Wendy to me. For her this was an adventure, but I kept ripping at the cuticles of my fingernails. The transmission gears were ready to go out again, and I had already fixed them twice with worn out parts from junk yards. Since I had no money to have a mechanic inspect it, I sold the Ford to a junkyard for twenty-five bucks. This bought a bus ticket for the rest of my trip. Wendy went home to Seattle, while I traveled to Tacoma, where I had heard about a summer job with an engineering firm.
Since I did not have a cent in my name, I walked from the bus station to the engineers’ office. I arrived there travel weary and sweating from the humid afternoon sun. My hair was neatly plastered in place, and my stomach was growling. I felt befuddled and forlorn. In the reception office I asked the first person who happened to walk through the lobby if his firm would be hiring anyone, and he said no.
I went back out, bummed a dime, and called Mike Hanson, a friend from college, whose father operated a molding mill at the Tacoma harbor. While I held the phone, Mike asked his father, who did not know me, if I could work for him. Mike told me that I could start the following Monday. I informed him that I would have to walk there, and that I could not afford to rent a room. He put me on hold again to consult with his family a second time, and when he returned said:
"I will pick you up. You can live with us."
Another crushing burden lifted from my soul. That familiar sinking feeling in my belly dissolved almost instantly. Suddenly I became very hungry. Without the Hansons I would have had to live under a bridge, eat from people’s garbage. But maybe not, because I had learned that Americans were much more helpful than the ones I had left behind in Germany. I certainly did not want to contact the Schitzmas, even now, because it had taken me too long to extricate myself from their tight grip.
* * *
I did not know where Siggi went for that summer, or if he had found a job. After I settled in with the Hansons, I located him at a YMCA dormitory about fifty miles away. When I called him he sounded forlorn and nervous. This worried me greatly. So the following weekend I took a bus to visit him, and he kept picking his thumbnail cuticles with intense absentmindedness and one of them had dried blood crusted at its base. This confirmed that he was a nervous wreck, much worse than I. His worry gauge signaled a state of crisis.
I was sure of this, because the depth and spacing of the ripples in some of our finger nails have always varied with the intensity, frequency and duration of our traumatic life episodes.
Fortunately, Siggi did find a job soon after my visit.
I worked for the Hansons all summer for union wages, and they did not charge me for room and board. Even so, by the start of the fall semester I had not been able to save enough for another year of schooling. The mill production diminished, and I was no longer needed. Since I had no car, Mike’s mother and two sisters drove me to Everett, where I returned to Screech and Stench, which had promised to employ me again.
Unlike my father, Mike’s father shed tears when I had to say good-bye. Unfortunately, I have lost contact with this very generous family and have never expressed my gratitude enough for their kindness. If it had not been for them I could have been hungry and homeless, that is, had I decided to stick around.
* * *
By the end of the first semester of my fourth college year, life was getting too easy, so I rotted one off one finger. I worked all night to finish a model for a school that I had designed. A policeman came to evict all students from the architecture building sometime after midnight. However, some of us went into hiding until after he left and then continued our work.
By noon the next day, zombie-like, I went to the workshop to cut a piece of plastic. The smallest three small saws did not function. Since I was under great time pressure, I used a table saw that was too big for my cutting job. The blade kicked whatever I was sawing and nicked the bone on the back of my right index finger.
I went back to the design room to complain about the dull saw blade and held my hand up to prove it. When the eyes of the student to whom I was reporting bugged out, I realized that trimmed fingers might be serious. Consequently, the design professor took me to the hospital, where I had to wait for long time before I received more than just a bandage. By then I had lost a total of only about two or three drops of blood, not enough to worry about.
I was admitted into the hospital, where a surgeon sewed up my finger and fastened it to a brace. I cannot remember after how many days I was released again with instructions to come back again in about a week for a checkup. However, my thinking had grown fuzzy, possibly from antibiotics and pain killers. To ease my pains, I accepted the invitations to two parties. We danced mostly to The Beatles at the house of Count von Randech. Not long thereafter, we revved up our pulses by dancing to Jewish folk songs at Chaim’s house. Both houses were bursting with students, who were dancing, singing, rocking and bouncing. The walls and floorboards were thumping, and it seemed that the whole world joined our rhythm. It was cosmopolitan revival time.
Sometime during that week, I happened to be looking at my damaged finger. That happened to be the moment when the rubber band that wrapped around the end of its brace suddenly snapped. I walked to the hospital and the doctor yanked it, ouch, to knot it back together. One or two nights later, my finger began to swell, but I did not realize this for quite some time. I was in such pain and emotional and mental confusion that I did not realize that the bandage might have been choking off the flow of blood. While my finger felt like it was crushed in a vise, I tossed around my bed, and wandered the hallways, whimpering in agony. At five o’clock in the morning, I tiptoed to the student health service, but the nurse told me to return at eight when the doctor would be there.
One hundred years later, when the doctor examined my finger, he said, "You have gangrene! We’ll have to amputate. I’ll try to leave as much as possible. See, this much."
"Then I cannot practice architecture anymore. I won’t be able to hold a pencil," I mumbled to the surgeon.
"You can hold it like this," he responded.
I felt extremely discouraged, because I was tired, paranoid and doubtful. I had invested a lot of effort to make it this far in college, and in life, and now I felt that it was mostly wasted, because I would have to change my studies major. This might take an additional year or two and a lot more hard labor to pay for it.
I remained in the hospital for about a week, I think, while my stump was healing. It continued to be extremely sensitive to touch for about a year thereafter. To prevent infections, nurses tickled me with needles, and I enjoyed their attention, so much so, that I looked forward to them daily. The nurses, with or without needles, were the highlights of my hospital stay. Therefore, I recommend them most highly, the nurses.
When I was released from the hospital, a nurse pushed me out of the front door in a wheelchair. I walked away and did not know where I lived. I could not remember how to find my dormitory, but somehow I arrived there. It was the end of the semester, and I did not study for my final exams. I did not understand the teachers’ lectures, and my notes were so illegible that I could not decipher them after my mind cleared again. Without being aware of it, I must have drifted or snapped into amnesia from shock, drugs and, or anesthesia.
I functioned, for I do not know how long, in a complete intelligence and emotional vacuum. I did not know how to find classrooms, restrooms, labs or lecture halls. I think that somehow I ended up in the right places, at the right times, most of the time. It was as if an invisible hand led me wherever I had to go. I crossed streets without paying attention to traffic. I had no mind of my own. I was not responsible for what I was doing, because I did not know who or what I was, or what I was doing. Did I shower with clothes on or roam around stark naked?
However, no one seemed to notice that I was a brainless zombie, and no one seemed to care.
I was vaguely aware that I was asking my physics professor if I could postpone my final test until later. I had explained to him that I had recently been twice in the hospital and was still in great pain. But because he would not allow me take this test at a later date, I squirmed around in my seat for two hours, holding a pencil with my bandaged stump. When he later returned my graded test paper, I discovered that I had written only my name and found it to be illegible. My grade point average for all classes dropped by about one grade, just because I had been spaced out by a rotten finger. This was somewhat like the observation that history repeats itself. I already had done poorly during my early school years partially because of my rotten ear.
During my final medical checkup, while I was waiting in an exam room for my doctor to arrive, I sneaked a peek into my medical file. I found a note from a doctor to my surgeon, mentioning something about what the "interesting patient talked about." I did not want to get caught reading my own file, so I quickly put it back into place. I have been wondering ever since what secrets, or nonsense, I spoke while under the influence of anesthesia and other drugs. Did I babble about Nazis or about playing in doodo? My love for lawyers and girls? Did I scream about my parents or the ghosts in my soul?
* * *
Every summer Siggi and I returned to the coast for our jobs. I would simply walk into the office of Screech and Stench, hoping to be re-hired, and in the beginning years I always was. Siggi also worked for one summer for this company, in the laboratory of its nearby paper mill, testing the production runs every night. I visited him during one of his shifts, up high in the factory, and observed his activities and those below.
The paper was produced in a giant box-like manufacturing plant that poured forth a six to eight foot wide ribbon out of one end. This unending ribbon spooled onto a giant roll. Whenever it was full, several men cut off this ribbon and manually threaded its end again onto a new spool to start another roll. Meanwhile, a bulldozer carried away the completed rolls. Even while the spools were being changed, the paper never stopped flowing from its iron womb.
By the end of Siggi’s shift, I was becoming very bored, when suddenly an alarm sounded. I looked down on the factory and saw that men were unsuccessfully struggling with starting a new roll, while the paper was now growing into a big, messy mountain on the floor. The bulldozer kept pushing it aside, while several men repeatedly kept cutting off the flowing paper ribbon in their attempts to successfully take up the new spool. They also had to avoid getting buried under in paper. Finally, after repeated attempts, they succeeded in getting the new spool started.
Besides our summer jobs, Siggi and I also worked in the dormitory commissary in the evenings during some semesters. In addition, every Sunday evening during one semester, from eleven until two o’clock in the morning, I enhanced my social life by cleaning and mopping the kitchen floor of the empty student union building for a generous one dollar an hour. This late night carousing caused my brain to hibernate during my Monday morning "calculus and analytical geometry" class. I only was able to pass this course, because a friend studied with me and concentrated only on what he thought would most likely be on the tests. His more successful, focused study method differed from mine in that I attempted to learn every subject detail with rote memory.
Around this time, I finally began to realize that the more I studied, the worse my grades could be. So during the following final test week, I severely weakened my neurotic study ghost by playing a lot of volleyball. I kept encouraging my teammates to get the ball over the net by yelling "over." Before long, both teams kept yelling "ova," imitating my accent. From then on, Ova became my mantra for success. Ova improved my grades, because I studied less and worried less. This was an example of how Siggi and I had to unlearn and undo some of what others had pounded into us. Figuratively and literally.
* * *
Although neither Siggi nor I ever told anyone that we were impoverished, our roommates must have suspected it. I brushed my teeth with soap scraps from our dorm shower. One day, my roommate, Bernard, insisted that I should attend a dress-up scholarship dinner in our dining hall. I did not want to go and told him that I did not have anything to wear to suit this occasion, thinking that he would accept that excuse. However, Bernard ironed one of his white shirts, at two o’clock in the morning, so I could wear it to this function. Because of his efforts I felt obligated to attend. To my great surprise, its master of ceremony presented me with a one hundred dollar scholarship.
Siggi had been the only other one to receive this amount from them and during a previous year. I thank that these students must have taken up a collection specifically for us and did not want to make us feel embarrassed or obligated. They disguised their acts of charity as bona fide scholarships.
* * *
I had first met my future wife, Linda, when she happened to be seated across from me in our co-ed dining hall on campus. She was tall, had beautiful eyes and long, thick, shiny hair. I just kept staring at her, which made her nervous. When I finished my salad, I asked her if she were going to eat hers. When she said no, I asked if I could have it, and she agreed. Thus began our life-long relationship.
In September, days before starting my fifth year in college, she and I were married in her hometown, Elko, Nevada. Linda’s family and its many friends gave us many presents and Maxo also sent us one. It was with sugar bowl and creamer set with a silver tea platter that were adorned with an old Frisian design. He had the bottom of this platter engraved with, "Best Wishes from Uncle Maxo." Three decades later I would introduce this present as evidence during a unique family reunion in a courtroom.
While Linda and I were completing our final year in college, we lived in a tiny, forty-dollar-a-month attic apartment that did not have a living room. It did have a miniscule kitchen and a bathroom with moldy walls and was located in downtown Pullman.
At graduation time, my friend Gale and I finished our final examinations before Linda. While she was studying for her last test, he and I played "Sea Battle." For this simple game, each player drew his "ships" on a sheet of grid paper that we hid from each other, by marking an equal number of squares to represent these ships. We could place them in any linear fashion and make them any length. Then we took turns trying to guess the location, to hit, each other’s ships. The player who first sunk all of his enemies’ ships won the game.
After we built our fleets we started our naval battle. Gale said:
"Missed," I informed him.
"A1," I continued, knowing that Gale was smart and probably would hide one of his ships in a corner of his paper ocean.
"Missed, J19," he answered.
And so we continued, missing and hitting each other’s ships more or less at random.
Suddenly I got lucky. I had a number of successful hits in short order.
"K2," I said.
"Hit," Gale said in a cold voice.
"L4," we could send an additional torpedo for each successful blow.
I blasted him repeatedly and could not control my laughing.
"This guy is psychic," mumbled Gale as I finished him off to win the battle.
I thought that I was not. Had I been psychic, I would not have believed how good my new life was going to be and in the not-too-distant future. Now that Linda and I were about to graduate from college, we were ready to conquer the world.
* * *